Conversatio Divina

Pull the Wagon

A Lenten Reflection on Psalm 51

Jean Nevills

Psalm 51 is the traditional prayer of Ash Wednesday which marks the start of Lent, the penitential season that prepares us for the feast of Easter. As a whole, it sets a well-ordered rhythm for the entire 40 days of self-examination. Beginning with God’s mercy we face our own disorder with vulnerable honesty before God, moving with the humble gratitude of a restored heart into teaching others and, finally, praying for Peace in Zion and the nations of the world

01.  Introduction

Pull the Wagon is a musical story about a young farm boy pitching rocks in the barnyard one summer day when one wild toss kills the family duck.Pull the Wagon, Mississippi Mass Choir, 1996, at 2:19 – 8:16. Caught in the act by his sister, he pleads for her silence. Turning against him, she blackmails him into pulling her around in a little red wagon. Day after day the summer heat, the guilt, and the wearisome work of pulling the wagon wears the little boy down. When he finally makes his tearful confession to mama—who had witnessed both the wrong and her son pulling his sister all over the farm—she readily forgives him. His shame and guilt are relieved and his suffering ends. At the end of the song the little boy informs his sister that he “ain’t pullin’ no more wagon.”

I know that I’ve misfired a few rocks in my life, and have pulled more than one wearisome wagon as a result. So, for me, Lent is a welcome season that gives me good reason to examine my life and acknowledge what’s weighing on me. Psalm 51 acts as a good spiritual director: inviting a pause, guiding a process for restoring my heart, and bearing witness to what my faithfulness is in response to God and our world.

02.  Confession Meets Compassion

Like the little boy who had to remember his mama and entrust himself and his misery to her, I understand the psalmist’s plea and why he appeals to God’s mercy. I know that before he could confess, before he could even approach God, he first had to recall who God is and then ask God to respond according to God’s character: steadfast love, abundant mercy (51:1)All references are NRSV, The Holy Bible New Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.

Acknowledging my own transgressions and iniquity is painful if not impossible for me when faced with my helplessness to make up for it. Having to stand up under the judgment and condemnation that was my experience in formative human relationships, I internalized the dread of it—including the disappointment of the person that looks back at me in the mirror. Having killed the duck, I feel like Bad Bad Leroy Brown, the baddest man in the whole damn town.Croce, Jim, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (1973). Vocal Popular Sheet Music Collection. Score 5856. My sin is ever before me, bullying, condemning, and shaming me: you were born a screw up; you’ll never get it right (51:5).

Thankfully, my experience with God is quite the opposite. My transgressions may be ever before me, but they are not ever before God. Without diminishing or discounting my sin, and also without inflating it, God is not intimidated by the challenge. Neither is God overwhelmed. God is that good and that great. God’s greatness is unsearchable (Ps.145) and, even if my sore heart condemns me, God is greater than my heart and knows everything (1Jn.3:21).

03.  A Sustained, Willing Spirit

Teresa of Avila, another reliable spiritual director, was rooted in her desire to never offend God.Teresa of Avila, The Book of My Life. translated by Marabai Starr. New Seeds; Abridged edition (July 8, 2008) She longed to rejoice always in God’s nearness and presence, and to be faithful in her life’s mission to help others enjoy God. I’m impressed at how often her story includes the plea from Psalm 51, sustain in me a willing/generous spirit (51:12).

For Teresa, and for me, it is the Love and Power of God that is needed for sustenance—to nourish, feed, strengthen, and thus sustain willingness and generosity of spirit. Teresa was eager to teach others the Way of Jesus, whom she called Your Majesty, and to help them turn towards Christ’s Love.

I pray with Teresa asking, how, Lord, can I teach your ways and guide transgressors and sinners when I am one myself? The Wisdom that answers that question comes back, “As one of them, one with them, you can point out the way for them.”

It seems reasonable and right that the call to help others comes to Teresa and the Psalmist after verses 10-12: After the cleaned heart; After the renewed and right spirit; After the restoration of joy in God’s salvation; After sustain in me a willing spirit. Like Teresa and the psalmist, in the After there is no longer falseness driving me from within or pretense without, but a heart that is true (51:6) and contrite (51:17).

Teresa prays with me from vs.15, open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. For if it is God that opens my lips, I can trust, without my having to think too much about it, that what comes out really will honor and praise God. I can trust that the Spirit will guide those whom God brings into my life whether by rock throwing mishap or intentional relationship.

04.  Ain’t Pullin’ No More Wagons

I know that Teresa’s life, and mine, is grounded in Psalm 51’s pattern of confession and worship in reconciliation with God, in a clean heart, and in a renewed and God-sustained spirit. It can guide me into Teresa-like boldness that is untainted by narcissistic power. It roots me in a life humble with gratitude to His Majesty that is reflected in my words and deeds.

I write this Lenten reflection while the world is still besieged by variant strains of pandemic disease, systemic injustice, and escalation of wars on multiple borders. As a human species, we’ve been pullin’ a wagon with the unbearable weight of our transgressions, aggressions, and sins that are ever before us. I pray for the day when we say in unison, we ain’t pullin’ no more wagons. Until then, as Psalm 51 guides me to pray for Zion, I am grateful for Nan Merrill’s meditative reflection on Psalm 51, and I pray the final verses with her words:

O Merciful One,
Receive our gratitude and love.
Let the nations turn from war,
and encourage one another as
good neighbors.
O Blessed and Compassionate Friend,
melt our hearts of stone,
break through the fears that
lead us into darkness, and
Guide our steps into the way of peace.Merrill Nan C., Psalm 51 from Psalms for Praying; An Invitation to Wholeness, © 2007, p.96-97


05.  Suggested Practice

During the days of Lent, slowly pray through Psalm 51. Reflect prayerfully on the good of confession; on receiving the gift of grace; on what restores your heart; what renews your spirit. Consider ways that might extend God’s grace through you to others. Use your favorite translation or Nan Merrill’s version:

Have mercy on me, O Gracious One,
according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant kindness
forgive me where my thoughts and
deeds have hurt others.
Lead me in the paths of justice,
guide my steps on paths of peace!
Teach me, that I may know my weaknesses,
the shortcomings that bind me,
The unloving ways that separate me,
that keep me from recognizing your Life in me;
For, I keep company with fear, and
dwell in the house of ignorance.
Yet, I was brought forth in love,
and love is my birthright.
You have placed your truth in the inner being;
therefore, teach me the wisdom of the heart.
Forgive all that binds me in fear,
that I might radiate love;
cleanse me that your light might shine in me.
Fill me with gladness; help me to
transform weakness into strength.
Look not on my past mistakes
but on the aspirations of my heart.
Create in me a clean heart, O Gracious One,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Enfold me in the arms of Love, and
fill me with your Holy Spirit.
Restore in me the joy of your saving grace,
and encourage me with a new spirit.
Then I will teach others Your ways
and prisoners of fear will return to You.
Deliver me from the addictions of society,
O Healer of Souls.
keep me from temptations that
I may tell of Your justice and mercy.
O Gracious One, open my lips and
my mouth shall sing forth Your praise.
For You do not want sacrifice.
You delight in our friendship with You.
A sacrifice most appropriate is a humble spirit,
a repentant and contrite heart.
O Merciful One, Receive our gratitude and love.
Let the nations turn from war,
and encourage one another as good neighbors.
O Blessed and Compassionate Friend,
melt our hearts of stone,
break through the fears that lead us into darkness, and
Guide our steps into the way of peace.